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'I fell in love with them from the first day': How Ireland's slot machine habit fuels addiction

As many as 40,000 of the machines may be in use across the country as the industry operates virtually unchecked.

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Yesterday Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie, published the first part of our look at Ireland’s slot machine sector.

This investigation found that gaming machines, which are addictive by design, were being run virtually unchecked across the country.

In this, the second part of the investigation, we examine the impact of the spread of slot machines on those at risk of developing gambling addictions.

FOR ANDREW*, THE first taste of what would become his all-consuming addiction came with the glare of a slot machine’s flashing lights.

In his early 20s, visiting coastal escapes like Bray and Salthill with their associations of long, carefree summer days, the hours would disappear in the seaside arcades surrounded by the soothing noises and lurid colours.

“It created a place where you could escape; nobody knew what you were doing, nobody was there to judge you,” he told Noteworthy.

“You could go in there spend a whole day and come out and return to work, to normal family life – nobody would have known anything about it, no matter what you spent or lost.”

A little over a decade later, after graduating to visiting bookmakers’ during his work lunch breaks and eventually to betting online at all hours of the day and night, the Dubliner was careering towards disaster.

He borrowed to fuel his habit, then borrowed some more to pay back his earlier debts.

The other gambling developed from the slot machines. You get the bite into you, because when you win it’s great – but you can’t stop when you get the win, the win is never enough,” he said.

Even when Andrew’s wife discovered the extent of his addiction – uncovering reams of bank statements detailing hundreds of deposits and withdrawals – it took a suicide attempt to drive him to counselling and finally put a stop to the gambling.

shutterstock_331470131 Source: Shutterstock/J.D.S

Ireland’s addiction

As with all forms of gambling, the majority of people who play slot machines will never become addicts, although little is known about the true extent of gambling addiction in Ireland.

Nor is it known how much is won and lost at the country’s arcades and casinos, not least because many of these venues operate outside of the regulatory system due to legal loopholes or the lack of enforcement of existing restrictions.

Based on UK addiction rates, experts estimate that 40,000 or more Irish residents may have serious gambling problems – while another 250,000 are likely to be at some level of risk of developing an addiction.

For regular gamblers, a bookmakers’ shop is still the favoured place to bet. Nevertheless, more than 10% of people who do gamble either visit casinos or play gaming or slot machines at least once a week, according to a recent Department of Health survey.

Separate estimates from UK analysts H2 Gambling Capital show that the average adult lost around €83 in 2018 on gaming activities like playing slot machines.

And those who visit slot machines regularly are likely to dig much deeper into their pockets to do so, accounting for a disproportionate amount of the total losses.

In Australia, where there are more machines per capita than any other major country, the average losses per regular player average around €2,000 each year in states where the machines are widespread.

Unlike in Ireland, however, most slot machines there are tied to strict limits on how much they pay back to punters, usually 85% of the amount fed into them over the long-term.

Pokies - Gambling in Australia Slot machines are routinely found in Australian pubs and clubs Source: DPA/PA Images

Willy’s story

Willy O’Connor’s introduction to slot machines came at the age of 10, when he experienced a rush he was to chase for the better part of the next 30 years.

On a boat to Liverpool, the garish lights on a machine caught his attention and he sat down to bet the entire £10 he had been given for the football trip.

With his last pound coin, he hit the jackpot: £25 sterling, a small fortune for an Irish kid in the late-80s.

“I fell in love with the slots from the first day I ever bet in 1988. I liked the lights first, that attracted me to them, and then came the feeling when I won that jackpot,” he told Noteworthy

“I firmly believe that that’s the day I started being a gambler, that I always chased that buzz.”

Like Andrew, O’Connor graduated to other forms of gambling: first at the bookmakers’, then playing roulette in casinos and finally virtual games online.

The betting sent him on a downward spiral that would see him borrowing, lying, stealing and eventually attempting suicide as he battled a snowballing addiction.

His habit culminated in the day he gambled every euro in his family account. He lost it all in 28 minutes.

In every case, he said, he was looking for the same instant gratification – the unassailable high – that he experienced years ago when placing his first formative bets.

“I’ve done lots of good things in my life since, but there was no high like that day. It was the best holiday I ever had – I paid for all of my friends at the cinema and I felt like a millionaire.

It’s not the only reason I gambled, but if I lost all my money that day I probably would never been near it again.”

shutterstock_709910980 Source: Shutterstock/Aerial Mike

Proliferation and escape

It has been estimated that anywhere up to 40,000 slot machines may be operating in Ireland, a figure that would put the country on par with Australia when it comes to per-capita concentration.

Even at half that total, Ireland would have among the highest proportions of slot machines in Europe.

The uncertainty around the number comes from the large numbers of unlicensed or improperly licensed machines in operation, often in areas where local authority decisions have effectively banned their use.

Addiction experts say the proliferation of slot machines – coupled with little to no policing of limits on stakes and prizes – has helped foster an environment where those predisposed to gambling problems are exposed to the maximum chance of harm.

Barry Grant, the CEO of Problem Gambling Ireland, said slot machines appealed to and were targeted at a cohort seeking so-called “escape gambling” – which differed from many other forms of betting in that it was less about the one-off thrill of a big win.

“They’re designed to encourage a person to get in a trance-like state for as long as possible,” he said.

“You’ll have people who spend four, five, six hours in front of a machine, and often venues will provide free tea, coffee and biscuits to keep people playing for as long as possible. People lose track of time, and the machines are designed in a way that facilitates that.”

Modern machines deploy sophisticated software with tactics – such as larger early payouts – to encourage repeat betting, leading many players to feed them to the point of ‘extinction’, an industry term for people running out of money.

“In Ireland, where it becomes problematic is there is zero legislation around them,” Grant said.

“In other countries you will have loyalty cards that will track what players are doing, and if they’re hitting certain red flags they will be legally required to make mandated interventions.”

An employee at one suburban Dublin slot machine operator told Noteworthy that the venue was propped up by a handful of regulars, adding that he had heard of players losing a month’s rent or mortgage payments in a single day’s betting.

We’ve seen people there the entire opening hours of the day, and there are plenty of people who come in the morning and go away and come back again two or three times,” the employee said.

The slot machine zone

A 2017 Canadian study into the psychological effects of slot machine use found that those already at risk of problem gambling were more likely to experience feelings of entering the ‘slot machine zone’. 

That involved falling into a trance-like state, where they routinely lost track of time and a sense of their surroundings, and even stopped noticing details about the machines themselves.

A separate study found that novice gamblers who were shown some of the tricks used in slot machines to lure punters – such as losses disguised as wins – were less likely to become hooked later on and more likely to have realistic impressions of how often they won.

Many local venues operate voluntary self-exclusion registers for those with gambling problems, however there is no obligation on operators to ensure these registers are in place or are adhered to by staff.

As part of drawn-out plans for a comprehensive overhaul of the State’s 63-year-old gambling laws, the government has considered introducing measures like ‘player cards’ for gaming machines to replace cash.

These could include daily or weekly spending limits to help stem losses for players, while other licensing conditions were likely to be introduced by a new gambling regulator.

However updated gambling laws, comprehensive plans for which were first put forward in 2013, are unlikely to be drafted for at least a year.

Closure of amusement arcades in Lower Saxony Slot machines can induce a trance-like state Source: DPA/PA Images

Laura’s story

Laura* has seen first-hand the mental gymnastics that problem gamblers can perform in order to justify their habits.

Now in her early 20s, the Dubliner watched over years as her father rung up five-figure credit card bills to pay for his slot machine habit, which in turn fed his gambling at games like poker.

“When we were younger, it would mean going without a lot of things, even food, because of gambling – he’d say he was going out to get petrol and next thing he would put €10 in the slot machine,” she said.

Clinging to the deluded belief that his gambling was a source of income for the household, Laura’s father for a time kept a book tracking how much he won and lost.

However when he discovered the true scale of the losses, he stopped maintaining the ledger – rather than ending his gambling.

He would have come from not having a lot of money as a child or a teenager, and I think he’s motivated by the thrill of thinking he’s going to end up a millionaire, that it’s going to change his life, but of course it won’t,” she said.

Psychiatrist Colin O’Gara, who specialises in addiction treatment, said problem gambling – which ranged from those with mild issues to full-scale addiction – was about a loss of control, which in the case of slot machines centred on control over time.

“Individuals would plan on spending an amount of time and spend quadruple that, and there’s often a series of lies and addictive behaviours that go along with that – which would be totally out of character for certain individuals,” O’Gara said.

He added that it was known from experience in places like Australia that easy access to slot machines increased the likelihood that people in the at-risk group of gamblers would move towards more destructive territory.

“We know that the majority of people who gamble on a slot machine won’t get addicted, but there’s a significant minority of people who will and that’s a significant public health issue.”

Life after gambling

Decades after he was first bitten by the bug with a slot machine, O’Connor has turned his back on gambling with the help of counselling and the support of Gamblers Anonymous.

After retraining, he now works with other addicts at Cuan Mhuire’s treatment services, while he has also worked as a kitman with the Dublin Ladies football team.

3741117 Willy O'Connor Source: GAApics.com

Andrew first turned to Pieta House before also joining Gamblers Anonymous. He said he was shocked by the levels of support he received from family when he finally came clean – although with that came “a lot of tears and hurt and fights and rows”.

“Definitely now, I would trace it all back to playing the slot machines. At the time it made no sense, all I knew was that I wanted to be in this little world with different feelings, feeling high and low, getting a big win and feeling really good. You could spend the whole night.

“But at the end of the day, I went in there, nobody asked me to go in. I would’ve loved someone to have tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to leave, but that’s never going to happen.”

*Pseudonyms have been used at the subject’s request to protect their anonymity.

If you need help with gambling addiction, get in touch with Gamblers Anonymous via one of their regional contacts, Problem Gambling Ireland on 089 241 5401 or other services listed here.

For those in need of mental health support, help is available via:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

A list of HSE and HSE-funded services can be found here

For more about how to support Noteworthy’s work, visit our website.

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